HL Deb 15 February 1940 vol 115 cc543-54

4.3 p.m.

LORD PONSONBY OF SHULBREDE rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether they will arrange for a Secret Session for the discussion of Lord Ponsonby's Motion on the Order Paper for 6th March [relative to "Ministerial speeches with regard to the Government's policy for the prosecution of the war"]. The noble Lord said: My Lords, with your permission I desire to make a few remarks before putting the question that is on the Order Paper in my name to the Leader of the House. May I say, to begin with, that perhaps it would have been more civil if the Government had waited for the question that I am asking and given me the negative reply rather that to tell the Press that the request was going to be refused? I have a cutting from an important paper, the Glasgow Herald, with the headings, "No Lords Secret Session: Government decide to refuse request." Well, that must have come from some Government source, because a newspaper with a reputation like that does not trust to mere gossip, and I think it would have been perhaps preferable if I had been allowed to put my question and be refused to my face. However that may be, I was encouraged to put this on the Paper because of a remark which fell from the noble Earl the Leader of the House just exactly three months ago, on November 15, when a similar request for a Private Session was put forward. The noble Earl said: The door is by no means closed should an occasion arise when the Government and your Lordships feel later on that a Private Session is necessary. That is to say, he did not actually close the door on it, and I thought that, considering the extraordinary importance of the next few weeks it might be thought advisable by the Government to allow opinions to be expressed in your Lordships' House which perhaps could be expressed more freely were we in Private Session. I do not intend, of course, to take this occasion to anticipate the Motion that I have down for March 5.


March 6.


Yes, March 6. It is rather broadly drafted, and at the same time I think your Lordships will probably know what I have in mind and the subject that I shall bring forward. I believe there was an idea that it should be ascertained privately what noble Lords desired to bring forward in a Secret Session, and there were so many different subjects that the idea of having a Secret Session was dropped. I think on the occasion of my Motion the subject which I should bring forward would be one that would claim the attention of all who participated in that debate, but of course it is possible that the noble Earl may agree with the noble Viscount the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, who on December 5, referring to me, said: He has spoken in his capacity as the representative of a minority, so far as I could judge, of one. That rather disparaging remark, I can assure the noble Viscount, is not accurate. I am not in a minority of one, even in your Lordships' House, and outside these doors I can count supporters, I do not think it is an exaggeration to say, by the thousand.

My desire, as it is the desire of everybody in this House, is not publicly to say things which can be condemned as helping the enemy, but at the same time to say things which I think ought to be said in the hearing of members of the Government. Members of the Government have been good enough to invite us to write to them. I have written to them, and they have had an interview with us. That sort of approach is rather tame, and the atmosphere of a Government office, as one sits on the edge of a chair while the Minister is looking at the clock, does not give one a very fair chance of saying precisely what one wants. I believe that this is the place and this is the right assembly for the divulging of the views which the Government may not be aware of. Even if I did represent only a minority of one I should not cease from doing what I do, but I am glad to say that I have a patriotic backing which has a different interpretation of the present situation from what the Government have. Those who disagree with us will be free to use what language they like. The noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Burleigh, who made a very strong speech the other day on the Motion that was moved by Lord Darnley, will be able to say, still more violently, what he thinks of us. He might bring out the old accusation that I was receiving German money; I was paid by the Kaiser in the last war! He would be quite free to say that sort of thing, and the noble Viscount, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, could put down a Standing Order that I be no longer heard not only on that occasion but on any other occasion. My noble friend the Leader of the Opposition, with a few well-selected epigrams, would tick me off altogether, and my noble friend Lord Strabolgi would make the speech of his life. He would be only sorry there were no reporters present.

But what is the objection to allowing certain opinions to be freely expressed and met on the floor of this House? If, as apparently is the case, this request is to be turned down, it is because the Government want to suppress discussion. They want to prevent discussion even in private. They do not want to be disturbed by opinions other than those they hold themselves. That produces in the public mind a rather unhealthy feeling that we have a Government that cannot be approached at all. The proceedings in your Lordships' House during the last few months have not been very enlivening or attractive. It is a Chamber for registering what is done in the other Chamber and for receiving a periodic statement on the prosecution of the war which all of us have heard a week before. Here is an opportunity for this House to engage in interesting, important, and illuminating discussion privately, with no desire for publicity. This is the one place that would not in the least object if no publicity were ever given to its proceedings. We are content to voice certain opinions and hear them, as they so often are, very well discussed and argued, but as to whether headlines should be given to any of us I am sure there are none of your Lordships who care at all. This is the place for such a discussion, and the opportunity for it is a Secret or, as I prefer to call it, a Private Session. I therefore beg to ask the Leader of the House the question which appears in my name on the Order Paper.

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, I think it will be agreed that my noble friend's proposal should be viewed with an open mind. There is a tendency to regard the advocacy of a Private Session as coming from those who are properly called pacifists. I should like to urge upon your Lordships that it ought not to be so regarded. There are many of us who are not what are called pacifists and who strongly believe in the value to the Foreign Secretary of a free and open discussion. I do not wish to repeat the arguments which were used in the previous debate in your Lordships' House on this subject, but I might recall that the desirability of Secret Sessions was fully thrashed out during the last war. In 1916 it was very gravely deliberated. It was thought desirable to hold them. They were thought useful. They were continued again and again, and if there are new reasons why Private Sessions are not useful, I hope we may hear them, because we all wish with an open mind to follow reason. But it does not appear that the reasons which prevailed then do not govern the situation now, and I hope that the Leader of the House, having shown that he had an open mind on the question, may be changed in the light of the new situation, and that he may be able to accede to my noble friend's proposal.

4.17 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to say only a word because I do not agree at all with the general views of the two noble Lords who have just spoken on the question of the war. I speak as one who is absolutely convinced of the justice of the war and of the necessity for its being carried out with full vigour. At the same time I cannot help thinking that there might be considerable advantage in a free discussion in this House of all the circumstances which oppress us and are with us every day continually, because, after all, without any undue flattery of your Lordships' House, it is the plain fact that it contains a very remarkable collection of noble Lords who have great experience and great knowledge in a number of different lines of public service. We have great soldiers and great sailors here. We have got a considerable number of noble Lords who have passed most of their lives in diplomacy. We have got business men and bankers. We have got, of course, politicians, men who have had a good deal of experience in that respect. And I was thinking only the other day—I do not know whether your Lordships will agree with me—that a committee might well be formed of your Lordships' House to which any great question of policy connected with the war might be submitted with the certainty that their deliberations would be of value to the Government of the day.

I have observed, in reading the debates that have taken place on this question, that it is usually assumed that the desire is to enable the Government to make statements more fully than they could make them in Public Sessions. Of course if the Government desire that, that would be no doubt a very strong reason for a Private Session. But I do not myself think that that is the main purpose for which a Private Session would be valuable. I cannot help thinking that a very frank and full discussion of the great questions—not only the question hinted at by my noble friend who asked his question just now, but others which are raised in connection with this war—in your Lordships' House, under conditions which I think would be sufficient to prevent any possible misunderstanding in what was said outside the walls of this House, might be of very great value for the conduct of the war. It is that aspect of it that I would beg the Government very carefully to consider. It is not that this is a kind of ambush that is desired in order to put the Government into diffi- culties. I am sure that is not the view of my noble friend who has spoken; it certainly is not my view. My view is simply that I think that such a discussion by members of your Lordships' House, who have very considerable, perhaps exceptional, knowledge of a great number of aspects of public life, would be of value in the public interest. It is on those grounds that I hope the Government will give consideration to this question.

4.23 p.m.


My Lords, we have no official demand to make to the Government for a Private Session such as has been described. At the same time, if my noble friend Lord Ponsonby succeeds in inducing the Government and your Lordships to have such a Private Session, we should be very glad to utilise the opportunity to say several things that are very urgently on our minds. I can conceive some quite definite advantages in our being able to tell the Government precisely what we think not only about events but about them. There is, of course, in times like these, a considerable danger that Ministers should interpret our patient, silent acquiescence in what they say and do as being a rapturous approval of everything that they say and stand for. I hope Ministers will remember that it is possible that Parliament may have its own views on such interesting questions. Some alarm has been expressed about the difficulties of a Private Session. Since we last discussed this question we may note, as a matter of interest, that the French Parliament has held such a Private Session, and I have not read of any startling leakages that occurred, but what I have read is that as a result of it the French Government got the quite unanimous support of the French Chamber of Deputies. If that is not an inducement for His Majesty's Government to make a similar experiment then no argument that my noble friend behind me can use will be of much value.

The only other thing I would wish to say is this, that if such a Private Session is to be held, I hope very much that it will cover a wider field than that which is indicated in the Motion that my noble friend has on the Order Paper for March 6. No doubt certain Ministerial speeches have been interesting. Whether a discussion of those speeches themselves is a sufficient justification for a Private Session your Lordships may judge, but if we have a Private Session I should welcome the privilege of wandering all over the field, of talking about the war in general, and about the way it has been conducted and many other things. I, therefore, cannot say that the Labour Party as an official Party demand this Private Session, but we do not see the disadvantages attaching to such a Private Session that we have heard from Government speeches in the past.

4.26 p.m.


My Lords, there is one point I should like to make, which I do not think any of your Lordships to-day has made. It is this, that if we had a Secret Session I feel certain it definitely tends to make the enemy feel that our people and the Government are not one in the prosecution of this war. For that reason alone I hope His Majesty's Government will not accept the suggestion.

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, although, as it will be my duty to try to make plain, I do not think that the ground on which the noble Lord asked for a Secret Session—namely, to discuss the speeches of Ministers—would be in any case an adequate ground, yet it has been the ground chosen by my noble friend the Leader of the House (Earl Stanhope) to invite me, as one of those responsible for those speeches, to reply to the noble Lord in place of himself. Whatever view we may take about the speeches that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, either has made or might make, I can assure him that I should regard it is most improbable that any Leader of the House, or any member of His Majesty's Government, would ever move in this House that he should be no longer heard, because it is always one of the most refreshing interludes of Parliamentary life when he honours our debates by participating in them. I feel bound also to offer a word of quite vicarious apology to him for the Press leakage that he has discovered, but which had escaped my eye, concerning the nature of the anticipated reply that the Government were to make to his question this afternoon. I can assure him that so far as I am aware, and I have made some inquiries, there was no official intimation made to the Press in advance of the reply to your Lordships' House, and I think perhaps he will not feel it impossible that there may have been on this occasion, as on others, some intelligent anticipation, based perhaps on what he was expected to ask and what, on the basis of past form, the Government were expected to reply. I think that either he or I, by practice of our own intelligence, could almost have reached the same conclusion.

I was a little bit distressed to find the noble Lord, the Leader of the Opposition, associating himself, though guardedly, with the noble Lord's request, and that not for the reason that would naturally be the first to occur to his mind. I do not in the least object to his having views about the merits of Secret Sessions that I may not be able to share, but I did greatly regret to notice that he had shown signs of breaking his own publicly expressed resolution of abandonment of grumbling for the period of the war. The main purpose on which he grounded his support to the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, was that he wished to be able to tell the Government what he thought of them. Well, if we had a Secret Session I can imagine myself finding equal delight in being able to tell the Labour Opposition what I sometimes think of them. But I can assure the noble Lord that it is not on any ground of that sort, any more than, as the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil, suggested, any ground of suspected ambush, that I should feel difficulty about acceding to what the noble Lord has asked. Let there be no doubt about this. I would wish to say another word about this in a moment. In no quarter that I know of on this side of the House, least of all in the ranks of the Government, would there be anything but the fullest desire to have all possible useful exchange of views, pooling of wisdom, concentration of effort in the task that does invite and enlist, as it necessitates, all our joint resolution and joint determination. But that really is not the point that is raised by the noble Lord's question.

The general question of Secret Sessions, as he has reminded us, has been debated in this House once formally and more than once by reference and implication. It has I think been made quite plain that the main purpose of that proposal has always been, as indeed it has been this afternoon, not that the Government should impart secrets to the House, but that members of the House should tell the Government, as the noble Lord has put it, what they think of them or what they think it is good for them to hear. With what purpose is that proposal made? One would suppose that the main purpose with which it is made must be to induce the Government to change their mind about this point or that, to convince them that on some particular matter of policy or action they could do better than they are doing. Unless that is so, it would seem that we should all find ourselves of one mind and that the talk would be completely devoid of purpose.


If the noble Viscount will excuse me for a moment, is it not just possible that in a Private Session the Government might allay some of our anxieties in regard to certain things—to preparations for the war, the use of existing machinery—which they cannot do in a Public Session?


Yes, I think that might be so. I had intended to say a word on that matter, but perhaps I might say it now as it is equally applicable to the point I was endeavouring to make. I would have thought that, for the purpose of the argument that particular policies should be pursued, whether on those matters which the noble Lord who put the question may have in mind, or in regard to methods of the prosecution of the war, or in regard to matters on which, as the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition says, there may be anxieties on particular points, far the better plan either of bringing conviction to the Government, or of bringing reassurance to individual members on different points, was not a Secret Session where people make more or less set speeches and points are not adequately proved and finally decided, but in private interview and private discussion at which across a table in conversation the actual points by which people are troubled or disturbed can be brought to much closer examination. I can say for myself, and I am sure for all Ministers, that at any time if any noble Lords have doubts or difficulties of any kind we shall hold ourselves wholly at their disposal.

I had meant to say something about the reasons why it did not seem to me that the noble Lord who put the question had chosen a wise or perhaps an adequate ground on which to base his demand. After all, Ministers' speeches were all made in public and they have all been the subject of public criticism or, as I think in the majority of cases, public approval, and I should find it difficult to see what possible reason there could be for debating those speeches in private. I believe they correctly represent——


May I interrupt the noble Viscount just a moment? The terms of my Motion for March 6 are deliberately of a vague nature because I did not want to draw fire by any precise Motion on the Paper. My object was not to compare Ministerial utterances, it was not to approve of one or disapprove of another, but to show that they were united in the prosecution of a certain policy to which I take objection.


Well, I do not know that the noble Lord's interruption causes me much surprise, because I rather anticipated that his Motion must have one of two purposes. If his object was not to show any difference between the speeches the only other possible explanation must have been to show that the general tenor of the speeches was uncongenial at least to him. But I do not think they happen to be uncongenial to the majority of the people of the country. It may be, and it probably was, that I fell into unwitting exaggeration when I said the noble Lord was in a minority of one. I am willing to give him that point, but I feel sure that he will give me the point that he and those who think with him represent a mere fractional minority of the country.


That is not a reason why we should not be heard.


Not at all, and that leads me to the next point that I was prepared to make. I really would far sooner have the noble Lord make any speech he likes in public in this House than have him ask for a Secret Session with all the consequences to which my noble and gallant friend behind me referred. Germans may be very ill informed in some respects about us, but I do not think they are so ill informed as not to know that the noble Lord really does not speak for any great volume of opinion in this country. The fact that we allowed him to speak in public—which he would not be allowed to do in Germany—would I think be the most convincing proof that we were not greatly intimidated by the difference of view that he might present in any set public speech. If he thought it was an essential thing for him to do the responsibility would be on his shoulders, but it would not cause me undue anxiety. But there is another point of view, and I would put this very earnestly to him, whether he does not think that a better result would be achieved if he were to take the opportunity that others have taken and some of his friends perhaps may have taken or may be willing to take, of discussing with members of the Government and with others in this House these questions in other ways by which, as I said just now, closer examination is possible than by debate, even in Secret Session, in this House.

There is really great force attaching to the observation made by my noble friend behind me. I do not know whether your Lordships took note that, after a Secret Session in another place not long ago, that was immediately picked up, as we all knew it would be picked up, by the machinery of German propaganda, and an article appeared in a German newspaper, so far as I know completely mendacious and misleading, but no doubt believed by the German people and giving them exactly the conclusion that my noble and gallant friend behind me anticipates would be the conclusion regarding the repetition of a Secret Session, especially if it were one of a completely roving character, as was suggested by the noble Lord who leads the Opposition in your Lordships' House. Therefore I think that it would be a mistake, to lend what I may call the magnifying-glass of secrecy to the views of a minority who, whatever we may think of them, are of course at full liberty to claim the opportunity of self-expression but have no right, by a special procedure in this House, to claim the opportunity of those views going out to the world with exaggerated, importance. That is the strongest consideration in my mind: that by claiming this special procedure for what are admittedly minority views, those views are claiming an additional privilege to which in my judgment they are not entitled. Therefore, while I have, as I said at the beginning, every desire to be fair to the opinions expressed by noble Lords opposite, while I recognise their right to hold them, I do not feel that, speaking on behalf of the Government, I am called upon to give them the advertisement of using those opinions as a foundation for asking your Lordships' House to depart from your ordinary procedure.